Frontpage Interview had the privilege of conducting the following discussion with Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, in an email correspondence. In Part I, Hitchens discussed Iraq, the War on Terror, the Left and his own intellectual journey. In this part, Frontpage Interview focuses on the Israel-Palistine conflict.
Frontpage Magazine: Welcome back to the second part of our interview Mr. Hitchens. Why don’t we just start with your general disposition to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Hitchens: One of the advantages of a Marxist and internationalist training is that it exposes one to the early writings of those Jewish cosmopolitans who warned from the first day that Zionism would be a false Messiah for the Jews and an injustice to the Arabs. Nothing suggests to me that they were wrong on these crucial points. If I could re-wind the tape I would stop Herzl from telling the initial demagogic lie (actually two lies) that a land without a people needs a people without a land. And, if Palestine actually had been uninhabited, I would still have said that Jews have no business seeking Messianic or Biblical ghettoes. That’s the way I think, and I am simply disgusted by the lunatic propaganda which even now argues that to make Jews “safer” there should be settlements built on stolen land in the middle of the Gaza strip, for example.
Those who propose this are deluding the Jews and oppressing and robbing the Arabs, and while they may well bring on Armageddon (as some of them openly desire to do) they will of course fail to bring on the coming of the Messiah, let alone the “second” such coming in which their even more moronic Christian fundamentalist friends affect to believe. I think it an urgent task of the United States to dissociate entirely from this enterprise, and for the Supreme Court to rule that no American funds be used for the illegal establishment of religion in the occupied territories.
Mistaken as it is as an ethno-nationalist quasi-religious ideology, Zionism may have entirely failed to prove itself justifiable or sustainable, but nonetheless has founded a sort of democratic state which isn’t any worse in its practice than many others with equally dubious origins. And we are of course now faced with Islamic nihilists who oppose any Jewish presence in Palestine at all, and who act accordingly. (Unless you believe, as some pacifists seem to do, that suicide-murderers slay themselves and others, including Christian Arabs, either out of “despair” or in order to bring about a two-state solution. I have no time to waste on that delusion, either.)
The United States is free to say at any time that it can and will guarantee the 1947/8 frontiers of Israel, and will make this defense perimeter part of the western alliance, but that it will not provide one cent for annexation and colonisation, let alone for fanatical religious proselytisation. General Sharon would have to reject this offer of perpetual “security”, because of the thuggish ideology of his own party. But the evidence is that a majority of Israeli Jews and Jewish Americans would support it, on principle. Why does this not happen, and why do we gamble the whole future of regime-change in the region on the wishes of a handful of demented zealots? At least partly because of the influence of the Christian lobby, which completes my point about the poisonous effect of the three monotheisms The war upon which we are engaged is a war for Enlightenment values, in which all religious fundamentalists are actual or potential traitors. It’s well beyond time that we recognised this elementary fact, and began to act upon it.
FP: You refer to settlements being built on “stolen land.” But the Jews never “stole” anyone’s land. The Palestine Mandate was never a nation, let alone even a political entity of any kind. It was a "mandate" that was created by the British from the remnants of the Turkish Empire after World War I. 10% of it was given to the Jews and 90% to the Palestinian Arabs.
Israel “occupied” the territories in a defensive war in which Arabs sought to wipe Israel out of existence. How do the Israelis give this land back if the neighbours who tried to exterminate them still refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist? Even international law legitimizes Israel for occupying the land after defeating its aggressors.
Question: why do you focus on Israeli “occupation” when you know that if Arabs desist from their desire and effort to obliterate Israel, that all kinds of land can be given to all kinds of Palestinians and Arabs?
Hitchens: The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement preceded the Palestine Mandate, and planned for a disastrous partition of the region which we are still (or those of us who know about it) compelled to regret. If you give the most cursory attention to the writings of Herzl and Nordau and other founders of the Zionist movement, or if you read the memoirs of Yitzhak Rabin closer to our own day, you will notice at once that they knew that a confrontation with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine was unavoidable. This was because they wanted their land, and wanted it without its inhabitants. The historic mistake - even if we agree that there was no ethical error involved - was the assumption that in time the Arabs would simply get used to this expropriation. To describe this is a mistake is of course a colossal understatement as well as a punishable euphemism.
The theft of land continues to this moment in the specific as well as the general sense: a farmer whose great-grandfather worked the same olive grove can be evicted without notice to make room for a settlement or a road or a wall, and told that such a flagrant confiscation is justifiable because he is not a Jew. This is a scandal, and its roots are inscribed in Israeli law, and I have never seen it justified. The only actual justification offered is that god awarded the land to one tribe a good many years ago, and of course this appalling racist and messianic delusion - employed by Israel’s Prime Minister without apology - only makes a terrible situation even worse.
I might add that this program of colonization was well under way before there were any suicide bombers, and was ruthlessly continued during the unarmed intifadah of the 1980s, as it was during every single day of the Oslo negotiations. You are quite mistaken about international law, which explicitly forbids interference with the demography and ownership of territories occupied in wartime. Meanwhile, leading Israeli conservatives speak openly about a “transfer” or mass deportation of the remaining Arab population, and boast that this is no more than what they began doing in 1947/1948.
Let me add a word for your Republican readers. I would be opposed to this maltreatment of the Palestinians if it took place on a remote island with no geopolitical implications. It is a matter of principle. However, the exorbitance of Sharon and his cronies is now such that it has attracted the criticism of the last four heads of the Shin Beth. What strikes me in this is the sheer wanton selfishness of the thing: for the sake of a doomed racist colonization the Israeli zealots are prepared to destroy the entire possibility of regime-change in the region (an enterprise that leaves them cold in any case because it doesn’t involve the fulfillment of insane biblical prophecies).
Mr Bush, to his credit, has become the first President to use the term “Palestinian state”. And he has criticized the building of the wall that both locks in and extends the occupation. Every one of the potential Democratic nominees takes an opportunistic pro-Israeli view that consists of irresponsible pandering. One of my reasons for favoring the re-election of the President is that only given a second term is he likely to speak up properly. He shouldn’t wait, of course. He should say immediately: “General Sharon, tear down this wall!” Dream on, you may say. I’m not an optimist here, as you will see from my earlier reply about Armageddon without the Messiah. But I know from experience that none of Bush’s liberal and Democratic rivals will even come close to this, and so I am a “lesser evil” person on this rather crucial point.
In the last sentence of your question, by the way, you appear to negate what you say in your first one.
FP: No contradiction. The basic point is that Israel has always been ready to provide land for peace. It is ready to do the same now. But the intent of the Arabs and Palestinians to wipe out the Jewish homeland, rather than to build a Palestinian homeland, is what constitutes the tragedy.
So I guess we reach this question then: do you think there is any realistic solution to this problem? If you were able to have some influence in the “peace process,” would there be any kind of idea or agenda that you would push for?
Hitchens: Well, the problem of Palestine is not, I hope, so anguishing and cataclysmic that it needs my personal solution. I do think, much of the time, that the moment for a decent solution may be in our past not in our future, and that a horrific outcome awaits. One of the haunting phrases of the Manifesto is the least noted: Marx and Engels speak soberly not of the victory of one side or another but of "the common ruin of the contending classes", and this is a better description of 1871 and 1905, to say nothing of 1914 and 1917, than they are usually given credit for.
Still, the solution of a local land-dispute between competing petty tribes ought not to be beyond the wit of man. The argument is contained within a quadrilateral. Either one side can defeat and expel or exterminate the other. Or there can be a sharing of the territory. Or the conflict may exhaust and destroy both parties. Or the status quo - a kind of armed and unstable apartheid truce - can be assumed to continue indefinitely.
There are no other options. So, to take the above in order, it can easily be seen that the fourth one is impossible. Neither Jews nor Arabs can go on as they are, and the demographic facts are ruthlessly telling. This in turn makes more fearful and more toxic the other two "solutions", each of which would involve ethnic cleansing and war and each of which would therefore involve - since ethnic cleansing would not be forgiven or forgotten - even worse wars in the future, not excluding ethnocidal attempts.
The second solution was adopted by Yitzhak Rabin because he had looked the alternatives in the face and had even thought of trying them. His murder by a Jewish fascist was a calamity, and I remember thinking at the time that it might make the nightmare options more thinkable.
In my opinion, Israel doesn't "give up" anything by abandoning religious expansionism in the West Bank and Gaza. It does itself a favor, because it confronts the internal clerical and chauvinist forces which want to instate a theocracy for Jews, and because it abandons a scheme which is doomed to fail in the worst possible way. The so-called "security" question operates in reverse, because as I may have said already, only a moral and political idiot would place Jews in a settlement in Gaza in the wild belief that this would make them more safe.
Of course this hard-headed and self-interested solution of withdrawal would not satisfy the jihadists. But one isn't seeking to placate them. One is seeking to destroy and discredit them. At the present moment, they operate among an occupied and dispossessed and humiliated people, who are forced by Sharon's logic to live in a close yet ghettoised relationship to the Jewish centers of population. Try and design a more lethal and rotten solution than that, and see what you come up with.
The principal reason why this trivial squabble has become so dangerous to all of us is the "faith based" element. Even for the so-called secular Jewish nationalists, it always had to be Jerusalem and Hebron. (Never mind the silly idea of turning Jewish watchmakers from Hungary into farmers: now it turns Jewish bullies from Brooklyn into vigilantes.) What did they imagine would be the response of the followers of the Prophet? I think myself that not even the most secular and internationalist Palestinian could be expected to bear the indignity of being first chucked out of his land and then told that oranges didn't grow in the "desert" of Haifa until 1948. One must not insult or degrade or humiliate people, let alone deport or dispossess them. Nor is one permitted to lie about history.
The United States now has - as elsewhere - to split the difference between principle and pragmatism, and it can if it wishes to do so. I feel sad that this is the best that can be done, and I shudder when I think of the missed chances, but a peace must now be imposed and the moment for performing this action is long overdue.
FP: Mr. Hitchens, thank you. It was an honor to speak with you. I hope you will grace Frontpage Interview with your participation again. Take care for now.
Christopher Hitchens Part I
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr